Writing Tools

This Machine Learning-Powered Software Teaches Kids To Be Better Writers

8 September 2017

From Fast Company:

Every time students take a writing exercise on Quill.org–a writing instruction platform for schools–their responses are logged by computers and analyzed for patterns. Algorithms take account of every false word they type, every misplaced comma, every inappropriate conjunction, deepening a sense of where the nation’s kids are succeeding in sentence-construction and where they need extra help.

The algorithms substitute for human intervention. Instead of teachers having to correct errors late at night with a red pen, the system does it automatically, suggesting corrections and concepts on its own. The goal, says Peter Gault, who founded Quill three years ago, is to reach more students than traditional teaching methods, including those who need support the most. About 400,000 students in 2,000 schools have used the (mostly free) writing-instruction platform so far.

. . . .

Kids today write all the time, perhaps more than previous generations. Whether it’s texts to their friends, or posting on Facebook, they’re constantly hitting the keys one way or another. But all this composition doesn’t necessarily make for better writing, at least not in the formal, academic sense. Just 24% of 8th- and 12th-grade students are “proficient” writers according to the Department of Education’s “The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2011,” published in 2012. Teachers often complain they lack professional development to teach writing well. And, there’s a widespread acceptance in education circles that writing instruction is less developed and successful than, say, math or science teaching.

“Teachers just don’t have enough time in the day to offer feedback on everything students write, and that becomes a huge blocker to students moving forward,” Gault says in an interview. “Using machine learning to detect these patterns really unlocks a lot of options that allow us to bring this to thousands, or millions, of additional students in the coming years.”

The New York-based startup trains its algorithms with about 200 responses to each exercise, submitted by its programmers (it has about 300 exercises so far). As the students offer up thousands of their own responses, the code is then able to detect patterns without additional human intervention. When it prompts students to correct their sentences, it does so based on the collective trial-and-error of thousands of other users of the service.

Link to the rest at Fast Company and here’s a link to Quill.org.

Microsoft Adds Read Aloud Feature to Word

1 August 2017

From PC Magazine:

This week Microsoft rolled out a number of new features heading to Office 365. The stand out addition is a feature called Read Aloud in Word, which you’ll eventually find available under the Review tab on the Word menu.

Microsoft offers a range of tools that come under the heading of Learning Tools in Word. They exist to “help you improve your reading skills by boosting your ability to pronounce words correctly, to read quickly and accurately, and to understand what you read.” Read Aloud falls squarely into the “read quickly and accurately” category.

When enabled, Read Aloud allows you to hear any given Word document being read out loud while each word is highlighted simultaneously. By going through this process, Microsoft believes it is easier to recognize and correct errors. And because Read Aloud happens within the existing work flow, it’s easy to rectify each error as soon as it becomes apparent.

Microsoft also views Read Aloud as beneficial for users with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. It should allow for improved reading and accuracy, and ultimately more error-free documents.

Link to the rest at PC Magazine

Creating Personas

30 May 2017

PG thought he knew what the OP would be about, but he was mistaken.

From Prototypr.io:

The first thing a good UX Designer should tell you about creating a persona is that if you just blindly follow a template, you have missed the point. User research should inform the layout — don’t let the layout constrain the research.

Put simply, don’t just follow a template.

Sadly, this advice is not very helpful when you are starting out, staring at a blank sheet of paper trying to create a set of personas.

‘Isn’t making a persona a waste of time? What’s the point?’

Personas are all about building empathy amongst your team. Great software gets made when the people who make it care about the people who use it. That means during every meeting, when making any decision, in every design and with every line of code, you should first be thinking about your users.

. . . .

‘What should I put in a persona?’

To answer this question with a question: what is it about your users that your team should know, remember and reflect on every day?

To answer your question in a more detailed (and longwinded) way, I have put together this worksheet that I use to guide my research:

Link to the rest at Prototypr.io

There is a second page to the worksheet at the OP. PG was interested in the similarity of the persona worksheet for a software user interface to a character sketch.

A Dozen Awesome Gmail Hacks

19 May 2017
Comments Off on A Dozen Awesome Gmail Hacks

PG posted a Wall Street Journal video discussing eight Gmail hacks yesterday.

Nate Hoffhelder at The Digital Reader was not satisfied with the wsj piece, so he wrote his own:

Gmail is possibly the most widely used email service, but are you getting the most out of it?

The following 12 Gmail hacks will help you take control of your inbox and go from being a Gmail user to a Gmail expert.  Read on to save time, avoid mistakes, and add a dash of style to your inbox.

. . . .

Use smarter searches

Everyone knows that you can use the Gmail search bar to look for emails to and from specific names (To: and From:) or under specific labels (label:) but did you know you can also exclude labels, senders, and recipients?

It’s true!

If you want to exclude a sender from a search in Gmail simple add a dash “-” before the From tag. For example, “-from:authorearnings@gmail.com ” will exclude any search results.

The same trick works for the To tag and the label tag.

Don’t fall for phishing emails

Scammers are getting pretty good at sending emails which you can’t tell from the real thing. This is why everyone warns you to not click a link in an email but instead visit a company’ website.

Luckily, Gmail has an experimental feature which can help you separate phish from fowl. Look in the Labs tab of the Settings menu and you will find an option called “Authentication icon for verified senders”.

When enabled, this feature checks the sender’s email address and adds a key symbol whenever it can confirm that the email is legit.

. . . .

Dropbox for Gmail

Do you like using Gmail and want to pair it with Dropbox rather than Google Drive?

Dropbox for Gmail is a Chrome extension that adds a Dropbox button to Gmail’s Compose window. This button makes it easy to share Dropbox links in an email, and it allows you to bypass the process of attempting to email large files — and saves valuable space in your inbox.

Yes, Gmail solves this problem by uploading large attachments to Google Drive, but if you already have all your docs in Dropbox then why not simply share a link?

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

10 Time-Saving Gmail Tricks

18 May 2017


The ergonomics of writing

17 May 2017

From Mad Genius Club:

Writing is a freelancing business. Like all other freelancers and most hourly positions, you can’t get paid for new work if you’re too sick or injured to produce more. (And, as a massage therapist friend learned when she broke her arm, hospital bills tend to pile up when the money’s not coming in.) Therefore, it’s a good idea to not only prevent the work-related injuries to hands, wrists, neck, back, eyes, and arms, but to also keep the rest of your body and your immune system in as good a shape as you can.

The first way to stay in healthy & uninjured is to avoid doing things that’ll get you injured. So, let’s discuss your writing setup. While curling up  on the couch with a laptop occasionally is fine, if you’re going to be spending much time on the computer (and all the internet, email, and gaming time counts, too), you should have an ergonomic setup.

. . . .

The next step up is to make a standing or walking desk; this allows you to get out of the chair, and give your body a break from sitting. Walking desks range from homemade setups on garage-sale treadmills to expensive custom jobs.

. . . .

When I do sit, I have a yoga ball to sit on at the ancient media laptop’s desk, which keeps facebook isolated and unable to suck my time away until I sit down there. It also lets me work on core strength and stability, even though I’m sitting.

The second way to stay healthy & uninjured is to take breaks and stretch regularly. You can search for “computer & desk stretches” or “office stretches” and come up with hundreds of variations; pick the set that work for you, and try to work them in regularly.

. . . .

However, if you’re working from home, don’t feel limited to chair stretches: you can get up and do plenty of other things to loosen up. Whether it’s getting up and doing five minutes on a chore (putting a few more dishes in the dishwasher, sweeping a room, folding a couple clothes or moving a load over to the dryer), or getting out of the house and walking up and down the block while muttering over plot points, you can incorporate giving your eyes and body a break in many different ways.

Link to the rest at Mad Genius Club

PG would add that a good keyboard is also extremely important. He’s never suffered from repetitive stress injury, but he knows some people who have. RSI can put you out of the typing business in a big hurry and for a long time.

Ergonomic keyboard manufacturers have come and gone in part, because it’s not a huge market. Fortunately, Microsoft started selling its ergonomic keyboard several years ago and appears to be in the business for the long term. PG couldn’t remember the number he has purchased, but Amazon says it has sold him five. He currently uses the 4000 model.

Ever since IBM stopped making laptops, PG has detested the keyboards on portable computers. If you use a laptop as your principal writing tool, there’s nothing to prevent using a separate keyboard, wired or wireless, with it. During a period of time when PG was doing a large amount of business travel, he purchased a compact external keyboard to use with his laptop in hotel rooms.

While he’s at it, PG will also add some commentary on computer mice. Ergonomic design can help there as well and external mice work with desktops or laptops equally well. For a long time, PG was a fan of Logitech and bought several Logitech Performance Wireless mice which worked fine.

About a year ago, he was introduced to the Anker Ergonomic Mouse and has been a huge fan ever since. It looks and feels weird at first, but PG has observed that it’s more comfortable for his wrist after a long day at the keyboard. It’s only $20, which is cheap for an ergonomic anything. He also tosses one into his computer bag when he travels.

One final ergonomic suggestion – put something under your monitor or laptop to raise the monitor from the top of your desk. PG’s current favorite height is nine inches from the top of his desk to the bottom of his monitor screens. He has a couple of cheap plastic monitor stands something like these. His third monitor sits on a stack of books that brings its height up to the same level as the others. (Fiction or nonfiction books will work equally well. Ebooks are a nonstarter for this job.)

PG currently has one large monitor flanked by two smaller monitors. It looks cool to persons under the age of ten, but if PG were to do it again, he would probably opt for two large monitors since he rarely uses the small monitor on his left.

Espresso is all that stands between us and creative defeat

15 May 2017

From The Guardian:

Ideally I write in a silent room with a magnificent and inspiring view of the natural world. I do not always have access to such a room. Instead I have street noise and an inbox full of administrative email, and if I’m really unlucky, actual phone calls to make. When I was depressed and unpublished and in my early 20s, I developed a full-blown phone phobia. I could put off the simplest call for days at a time. I still hate having to talk to the bank or the accountant, and find it hard to concentrate on writing until I’ve dealt with that kind of task.

Both Katie and I write at home. When the sitter turns up at 10am, the household settles down. I used to waste an improbable amount of time, but I don’t have that luxury now. I create my space with headphones, big over-the-ear cans that block out the world. I play music, usually something very minimal at low volume, just enough to trick myself into the meditative concentration I need to write. No vocal music for obvious reasons, though vocals can be OK if they’re in a language I don’t understand. When something works, it disappears and becomes an environment in which I can think.

. . . .

I have a desktop computer and a laptop. For a novel I make a single Word document, but rename it every morning, so I have a way to track versions if I need to dig out something I cut. I make notes on paper, in spiral-bound notebooks, but my handwriting is terrible, particularly if I’m trying to set ideas down quickly, and it’s much faster to type. I back up. I can’t understand writers who don’t back up. I look at a monitor jacked up to eye height on a pile of books. My desk is usually cluttered. I recently bought myself a good keyboard (one with mechanical switches, but that’s not too loud) and I wish I’d succumbed to keyboard fetishism years ago. What can I say? It’s a nicer ride. I spend a lot of time on the internet, but some of it’s research. My concentration is better when I’m not toggling between my Word doc and 30 different tabs on a browser.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

New Word Editor

14 April 2017

From Inc.:

Last week, as I was trying to finish a document in Microsoft Word 2017, a new feature caught my eye. It’s called Editor, and it is a little frightening. Here’s why.

I remember the good old days when Word would happily suggest passive voice fixes and offer to correct spelling. Long before that, Word stayed out of the way. Back when Bill Gates was in charge, Word was more like a blank page for my creative ideas.

Now, it has become much more aggressive.

When the app started telling me about weak words like “maybe” and “possibly” I was OK with that.

. . . .

I’ve realized, however, that Word is now using machine learning to look for much deeper problems. Troubling problems. Problems that have lurked in my writing for 16 years. Word is now analyzing my word choices, looking for contextualization problems, flagging words that are overused or too casual, hinting when a word is overly complex.

It’s trying to improve my writing, and I’m having some issues with that.

First off, don’t you dare try to use AI to fix my writing! I’m OK with AI helping me drive better in a Tesla, or shutting off the lights in my living room when I’m not home, or finding a better deal on travel when it sees how much time I spend scouring Expedia for good flights to Vegas. I can handle AI probing my email and weeding out the fluff, or even suggesting better web sites. Someday, I might have a discussion with Amazon Alexa about my health conditions, and I’m perfectly fine revealing all of those details.

But flagging me for Too Many Determiners? Calling me out for an Incorrect Auxiliary? You’ve gone too far and you know it. I was perfectly fine living in my cocoon of illusion, never knowing I had issues with Vague Adjectives or an Indefinite Article. I liked being indefinite! Now, I am carrying around all this excess baggage realizing I have some work to do. For example, I really should not have ended that sentence with the word do. (There I go again.) There are ways I can improve, and I’m not happy about that.

Link to the rest at Inc. and thanks to Dusk for the tip.

PG doesn’t think he exactly replicated this behavior. The OP refers to Microsoft Word 2017, but PG thinks the latest desktop version of Word is 2016. The latest Word 365 also shows it as being the 2016 version.

PG thinks he sumbled onto grammar central on Word 2016 under {File} {Options} {Proofing} then clicking the Settings button under the “When correcting spelling and grammer in Word” section (way to be intuitive, Microsoft).

After clicking the aforementioned Settings button, the following box popped up:

He’s not certain he found the same place that originated the behavior described in the OP or if it is another 15 levels down in the MS Word menu system.

PG welcomes comments that will illuminate his understanding.

The laptop is dead

3 April 2017

From TechConnect:

You may never buy another laptop.

Ten years ago, laptop sales overtook desktop PC sales to become the dominant hardware platform for computing. Now smartphones are about to do to laptops what laptops did to desktops.

But wait, you may ask. What’s wrong with laptops?

. . . .

For the past decade, Apple has led and dominated the laptop market with design and innovation. The company has been moving toward better quality, so-called “Retina” screens. Apple’s keyboard designs and unibody aluminum construction have been heavily imitated. The company used to dazzle the industry by sweating the small stuff, like the MagSafe power connector and lights that shine through aluminum.

It’s not just that Apple innovated. It’s that its laptop innovations evolved their products toward elegance and usability. And that’s over.

After years without a significant new laptop design, their latest release, last year’s MacBook Pro, landed with a thud. The laptop was seriously underpowered — called by some a MacBook Air at a MacBook Pro price. The company ditched its incredibly popular MagSafe power connector in favor of USB C power.

. . . .

The best thing that can be said about the MacBook Pro is that it’s faster and has a better screen than previous models. But this is inevitable and expected, not revolutionary.

There’s nothing about this laptop that’s going to drive the industry to imitate. Rivals are more likely to see the new MacBook Pro as an opportunity to provide something different, not something similar.

. . . .

The U.S. and U.K. governments recently banned all non-medical electronic devices larger than a smartphone as carry-on for U.S.-bound flights on specific airlines from specific airports in the Middle East and North Africa. Passengers are required to check their laptops.

. . . .

There are several assumptions we can make about the ban.

First, like so many security measures, the ban may spread globally and eventually include all flights. For the next few years, it may become impossible to use a laptop on a commercial flight.

Second, such a ban will affect laptop sales. Many travelers won’t want to place an expensive laptop in checked luggage for fear of loss or theft. The general fear, uncertainty and doubt around laptops on airplanes is enough to change consumer behavior. And the frequent flier is the laptop industry’s best customer base.

Third, the ban will be an incentive to develop alternatives so passengers can travel without laptops.

. . . .

Samsung announced this week its upcoming Galaxy S8 and S8+ smartphones, and the public is impressed. But even more impressive is a Galaxy S8 peripheral called the DeX Station.

The DeX is a smartphone dock into which you plug a keyboard, mouse and monitor. DeX enables you to use your Galaxy S8 as a desktop PC. (Instead of a monitor, you can also plug in a TV or projector.) The dock outputs at a 4K resolution, and it supports Ethernet for faster connections.

I expect some of you business users to buy two — one permanently installed in your office and another in your home office. That would enable you to use your smartphone full time as your only device, even as you benefit from the giant screen, full-size keyboard goodness of a desktop PC everywhere you work.

You can take it with you on trips, and use it in hotel rooms to plug into the room’s big TV.

Link to the rest at TechConnect


Making Your Phone Take Dictation

23 February 2017

From The New York Times:

 Q. I am a writer and ideas for stories come to me at the most inopportune times. I usually end up making voice memos on my iPhone, but in the end I really need to transcribe them to text. Is there an effective and efficient app to automatically transcribe voice recordings?

A. Third-party apps and services that convert spoken words into text files on iOS devices are plentiful in Apple’s online store, but depending on when you need the transcribing to happen, you may not need to download anything extra. For example, the Siri assistant software built onto iOS can open the iPhone’s Notes app and transcribe your words as you speak them.

Hold down the iPhone’s Home button (or say “Hey Siri” to wake up the software), say “Make a new note,” and then speak your thoughts — reciting the punctuation like “period” or “comma” aloud. The resulting note can be emailed, copied, pasted or shared with a compatible text app.

Siri may be the quickest way to dictate a quick set of thoughts without fumbling with other apps, but if you do not use the Siri assistant, you can turn on the Dictation tool in the iPhone’s Settings app. In Settings, go to General and then to keyboard to find the Dictation option buried at the bottom of the screen. When the setting is enabled, a small microphone appears on the keyboard of text-entering apps like Notes, Google Docs, Microsoft Word for iOS, or Apple’s own Pages word processor.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Jan for the tip.


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